april 2009

Lit, Unrepentant, and Knockin' On Hell's Door

By David McGee

The Mojo Gurus' Doc Lovett (left) and Kevin Steele: For those about to rock, the Mojo Gurus salute you.

The Mojo Gurus
Linus Entertainment

Buy it at www.amazon.com



Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat
Underworld Records

Buy it at www.amazon.com



The vitality of straight-ahead, hard charging, guitar-fueled rock 'n' roll with a blues base and a southern twist is no better demonstrated than on new long players from the Mojo Gurus, by way of Tampa, and Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, by way of Texas. With Kevin Steele's gritty vocals and Doc Lovett's searing guitar, the Gurus, although occasionally dabbling in some rowdy honky tonk ("Better Of the Bottle," complete with some raucous fiddle and banjo work), stay mostly in a solid, snarling, punishing groove that embraces vintage Keef (that's Keith Richards, for you youngsters) and even Marc Bolan flourishes and sound signatures, and further celebrates the unadulterated joys of hedonism and libertinism. Do not forget for a moment that the band's album is titled Let's Get Lit—that about says it all. Suhler's veteran Monkey Beat outfit emerges from a darker, more malevolent place, "dodging Federales" and celebrating "Chaos in Tejas" with a glorious, grinding, Texas blues-rock thrust marked by heavy guitars and a gut-punching rhythm section. Both bands are tight, focused quartets, supplemented on record by additional instruments suitable to their points of origin: the Gurus bring in banjo, fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, sax and keyboards; Monkey Beat bolsters its attack with, from time to time, harmonica, slide guitar and sax.

The Gurus charge out with the title song, which does have some pedal steel and banjo emerging from its hard driving pulse, celebrating approaching debauchery at the end of a long, hard week in a song marked by a rowdy, party atmosphere and more than a few voices in rough-cut harmonic convergence; not wasting any momentum, the second song, "I Can't Stand To Hear That Song Again," is a Skynyrd-style grinder fueled by Steele's rugged vocal (he's still in the bar, trying to drink away the memory of a gone gal) and Lovett's swaggering guitar. A little T-Rex overdrive informs the third track, "Bucket O' Blood," the title referring to a dubious joint where the party goes all night long and the dramatis personae plan to indulge to the hilt. The pattern thus set, the Gurus show no inclination to let up, relentlessly kicking ass while assaying the stomping, roadhouse rock of "You Didn't Have To Do Me (Like That)," the aforementioned all-out country shuffle (a tip of the hat to Doug Sahm in the Texas Tornadoes tenor of this one) of "Better Of the Bottle," the Stones-ish bump and grind of "(Just A) Couple of Kicks," "Rebelene," which comes from a deep place in rock 'n' roll history, meshing styles ranging from vintage Gene Vincent to Link Wray to the Clash, and offering some AC/DC fury in "13." The fellows must have felt a need to let us catch our breath at some point, and so tone it down a couple of times, and surprisingly so: "Words From An Angel," a solemn, backwoods country tune in which the singer is redeemed from sin with an angel's intervention—"so lay down your whiskey bottle/swear off all them women and weed/don't raise a hand to your brother...remember these words from an angel," is part of the advice he's given—seems like it might be here for comic relief, especially when Steele intones the angel's directive. But the sense of spiritual uplift in the music is no joke: the band lays down a gentle waltz behind him, with mandolin, steel guitar and Steele's own wailing harmonica lending the proper spiritual feel to the endeavor. Of course, in the next number, "13," Steele, exercising a fine Brian Johnson growl over Lovett's driving, Angus Young guitar assault, screams about how "hellhounds and demons/call me in my dreams/in the black of night/can't you hear the screams/My Jesus, turned his back on me..." Well, later for salvation. Encapsulating their comme ci comme ça philosophy in a strutting country barnburner to which Billy Sandlin adds some frantic banjo rolls throughout, "Nuthin' But a Thang" is the moment when Steele and his mates shrug off all manner of political and personal dilemmas as, oh, kind of being in the natural course of human events and, ultimately, "nothin' but a thang." For those about to rock, the Mojo Gurus salute you.

Funny, but AC/DC comes to figure in the Tijuana Bible ethos too, not only in spirit but in fact: the band tears through a raucous rendition of the Young-Young-Scott copyright, "Up To My Neck In You," in punishing fashion, giving it a surprising southwestern twist that makes those Aussies sound straight outta Texas. Otherwise, though, the veteran Suhler (he's been George Thorogood's lead guitarist since 1999) and his Monkey Beat cohorts are more than knee deep in Texas blues, and more bedeviled than is Steele by the hellhounds on his particular trail and what that portends for his ultimate fate. If confronted with such literary efforts, Steele might indulge in the cartoonish pornographic delights to be found in the real Tijuana bibles (think of them as the graphic—in many ways—novels of an earlier era depicting popular personalities of the day in compromising positions, to say the least), Suhler instead sees the dark side of this paradise: publications smuggled across the border, "written in a narcotic haze, sacred tales, defiled and twisted," as he intones in the grinding title track that leads off the album and sets the ensuing tone. Over a galloping beat and protesting guitar riffs, Suhler bemoans the underworld king's hold on him in "Devil In Me"; his moaning, heated guitar punctuating the sludgy "Long Hot Summer" make Suhler's lament about the drudgery of toiling "sun to sun" with "no hope, no right to pray," all the more unsettling, given that the song doesn't reveal whether the singer is a common laborer or a prisoner (or both); "Black Top," another guitar-heavy song unfolding at a galloping pace, finds him careering down the highway, fighting demons, admitting there's "no peace for the wicked" as "night turns to day again." The horn-enriched roadhouse blues punch of "Years of Tears" recounts the ongoing devastation of losing a good woman—"I'm drowning in misery," he cries, "going down, down in misery." So it goes in this world Suhler's fashioned on Tijuana Bible—nothing comes easy, no sin goes unpunished and the Old Account will record every act of malfeasance. It's only fitting Suhler should find a summation of his plight in the work of one of his guitar heroes, Rory Gallagher, in whose slow boiling blues grind, "I Could've Had Religion," the pleasures of the flesh do battle with—and prevail over—the inner call to greater purpose, as Suhler's wailing, howling guitar flurries suggest the crippling turmoil he bemoans in the song, when he exclaims bitterly, "She sent the Devil my way!" as his guitar spits out a flurry of anguished, cascading notes. On the lighter side—and there is one—Elvin Bishop provides an evocative slide guitar on Suhler's tough rendition of Elvin's woozy blues, "Drunken Hearted Boy," and Wet Willie's Jimmy Hall steps in with an attitudinous guest vocal on a delightful, jittery blues tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins, "Po' Lightnin'." These are but diversions, however: the real business of Tijuana Bible goes down during a dark night of the soul. Enter at your own risk.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024